Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
I’m not sure how old I was when my mom taught me how to find wild mushrooms. I know she held my hand as we walked into the woods that day. I can still feel the warm touch of her delicate fingers. That would put me at around seven years of age. Any older than that I would have stopped holding hands because, according to my older brother, it wasn’t “cool.” What a shame.
It was springtime in Bellingham, Washington and if you knew where and how to search you could find delicious edible mushrooms in the woods behind our home. However, as Mom soon taught me, it took some first-class hunting. (Toadstools were easy to find, but they would kill you.)
After trekking through the woods for nearly an hour Mom eventually dropped five mushrooms into our brown paper bag. I had found one. We eagerly took our bounty home where Mom quickly fried it and popped the tender morsels into an omelet. This ritual went on for a couple of weeks—the two of us searching hand-in-hand and eventually returning with a half dozen or so mushrooms.
Then one Saturday morning my world changed. Driven by some genetic, time-released code hidden deep inside my cells, I sprung to my feet, grabbed a brown paper bag, and went in search of the fungi on my own. I still remember how frightened I was as I walked into the thick, dark woods behind our house. I hadn’t read about the “wild things” that lived there (the book wouldn’t come out for another decade), but I certainly had heard their occasional growls and howls. I had even seen their tracks. Plus my older brother had filled my head with tales of moose, cougars, and bears (Oh my!) that routinely mauled anyone who dared enter their domain. And I was about to enter their domain.
The prospect of being gutted by a beast frightened me right down to my socks, but it wasn’t enough to keep me home. Not that day. My desire to prove my mettle outweighed the fear that normally kept me close to home. It was my time to step up to the table. It was my time to provide for the table. So, I plunged into the darkness, eyes pinned to the forest floor—dead set on bringing home the bacon.
It was hard work finding mushrooms that day. The woods were wet from an overnight rain; the underbrush scratched my arms, burrs stuck to my pant legs and socks, and stinger nettles rubbed against my exposed neck and ankles—leaving behind tiny mountain ranges of welts. All the while, the mushrooms hid. They were masters of camouflage. With no effort whatsoever, they magically disappeared into the forest floor—nature’s Waldos—perfectly blending into the background.
After over an hour of fungi-less searching, and just before I trudged home in utter defeat, I eventually stumbled into a small grove that offered the first mushroom of the day. As I bent down to gather it up, there next to it I saw another—and then another. Startled by the find, I jumped to my feet, gave my eyes a second to adjust to the diminished light, and there, peeking their heads through the loam and leaves, I spotted dozens of edible delights. I’ll never forget that glorious moment. I had stumbled on the mother lode of mushrooms. I would return home the victor.
I soon gathered up every single fungal gem and dashed home with my brown paper bag filled to the top. (These were the honeycomb variety of mushroom and as such, easy to spot—so I wasn’t running the risk of bringing home deadly toadstools.) Mom beamed with delight when she saw what I was carrying. My brother gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Dad slapped me on the back, carefully inspected my bounty, washed it, and fried the lot in butter. Then the four of us sat down at the family table and feasted on a delicious breakfast that I, a seven-year-old boy, had hunted and gathered all by myself.
Some kids go through a formal rite of passage into manhood. They do it at church or during a tribal ceremony or maybe even at home when Dad tosses them the keys to the car or their first laptop computer. Not with me. I was only seven that day I brought home the mushrooms—about half the age most people think it takes to spring into manhood. But for me, I’m pretty sure I made part of the leap right then and there. After all, as everyone could plainly see, I was now a member of the select group of people that helped feed our family.
And feed our family I did. From mushroom gathering I soon graduated to berry picking, clam digging, and fishing. We were dirt poor during my childhood years, but we always ate well. Imagine a dinner comprised of wild mushrooms, butter clams, trout, and hot blackberry pie. It’s the kind of fare they serve at a fancy restaurant nowadays. We Pattersons ate such stuff because it was free and, more often than not, I had brought it home.
I hadn’t thought about this part of my life until last week when two of my granddaughters invited me to a fashion show. At age nine, the two of them had taken a sewing class from one of our neighbors and now they were going to model the blouse and skirt each of them had made. They had picked the patterns, selected the material, and after hours of work and meticulous care had sewn an outfit that they’d soon be wearing to school.
As each granddaughter paraded around the church auditorium cum runway, I nearly burst with pride. Imagine that, making their own clothes—and only in the second grade! Later that evening as we talked, each child stood confidently wrapped in clothes of her own making. As I looked closely into their eyes I could tell that both girls had changed. I had seen them perform ballet, gymnastics, cheer leading, piano, violin—you name it—they had taken the lessons and performed at the recitals. But this was different. They were different.
Most lessons are about improving yourself, performing, and then taking a bow. And while I believe in such personal training and the skills, confidence, and discipline it develops, it’s not the same as producing something the family can use. It’s not the same as adding to the country’s gross national product. It’s not the same as picking mushrooms or sewing your own clothes. Do that, and you’re part of the group that feeds and clothes your family. Do that, and you change.
I suddenly saw the value of teaching children and grandchildren (while they’re still young) ways to help feed and clothe the family as well as how to care for the home. Perhaps you think I’m grasping at straws, but I think the difference between performing and providing, although subtle, is substantial. Praising a kid for taking three minutes to draw a crayon picture is one thing. Praising a child for bringing home the bacon is something both memorable and worth shouting about.
And now for the organizational take away. Within companies we often put people through training and other educational experiences that help them improve in some way. But we don’t always teach what it takes to “put food on the table.” That’s because we don’t take the time to identify and teach skills that can make a difference to the bottom line. We’re driven by catalogues and what’s currently popular or even what’s politically safe more than we’re driven by our actual needs. Besides, it’s hard to discover what you really need. It can take real research. You have to talk about problems. And that can be awkward.
In a similar vein, we only rarely teach complex interpersonal skills (skills that can affect the bottom line) because it can be difficult. People don’t follow rote paths. You have to be prepared for all kinds of different responses, and who wants to do that? We don’t practice until we’re competent and confident because that can be repetitive and require touchy feedback. In short, we frequently avoid the nettles, burrs, and bears (Oh my!) and do what’s easy and comfortable instead. We walk to where it’s safe, light, and comfortable, not where we need to go to find the mushrooms. Then, of course, we come home un-scraped, un-prickled, un-stung, and empty handed.
But that’s okay. Because in today’s world we’re likely to get a high-five and a rowdy cheer—just for trying.
I, on the other hand, want the mushrooms.